Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The tug of a perfect love affair

Like many of you, we've had company over the last week. Lots of food and conversation, stories and catching up. Christmas morning, I felt a pinch inside watching my boys unwrap gifts that reflect how much they've grown, how fast they've gone from believing in Santa and unwrapping Batman action figures to getting a weight bench or a laptop as their one big gift. It's been great, yet through all of the noise and activity (skating, walks to the river, some of them running 7 km into town and the rest of us meeting them at a coffee shop) a restlessness began to take hold. My mind started to wander and I'd catch myself drifting away from what everyone else was saying.

Yesterday, my husband whispered, "You want to go work on your book, don't you?"

"Is it that obvious?" I asked, and he smiled and said, "To me it is."

Today, a group went snowboarding and won't be home until tomorrow. The rest left to visit relatives and won't return until Thursday. Which leaves me alone, at my desk, writing. And as I do, I realize now more than ever that I am exactly where I'm supposed to be, doing exactly what I was meant to do -- which is what I wish for each of you in the year ahead, the perfect love affair between what you most desire and what you were meant to do.

Happy New Year readers, writers and bloggers!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The toughest thing I've done this year? Learning to trust my instincts

Which is great in theory, but difficult in practice.

Once you're published there's lots of white noise going on in the background that's almost impossible to ignore. Everyone has an opinion and you feel pressure (right or wrong) from all angles -- readers, your agent, your publisher, bloggers, fellow authors, book reviewers. Do their opinions matter? Of course. But at some point you realize you can't allow them to hijack your writing either, because then you risk killing your inner voice which could lead to pumping out one vanilla-like novel after another, and who wants that?

I like the 'Go Big or Go Home' mantra, and as I write these days that's what's been going through my mind. Right or not, I've been trusting my instincts more with this novel than I did with the other three. Will doing so make it a stronger book? Only time will tell, but I can tell you that the journey has been far more enjoyable and empowering, so it's all good.

Other tidbits of interest:

Two weeks ago, my thirteen-year-old asked if he could read my novel, The Tin Box. (He's become a reading machine and had temporarily run out of books). Right now, he's halfway done and yesterday he searched me out to tell me he cannot believe I wrote it, one of the most backwards compliments a mom can get. I think.

My eleven-year-old is going to be a pen pal to a girl in Britain. He brought home a permission form and explained that all of the girls in his class had signed up to be her pen pal but no boys, which he thought was sexist, so he decided to write her so she doesn't think Canadian boys are jerks.

Construction work on my street has screeched to a halt for winter (insert heavenward high-five) which means I no longer have a porta-potty in my yard, the phone/internet line won't keep getting cut off for days at a time and we won't get evacuated like we did last month because they've hit another gas line (who hires these people?!)

Last of all, happy holiday season everyone, and thanks for all your kind emails in 2009, readers! Your comments and encouragement mean more to me than you can imagine.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Getting quiet with yourself & other pursuits

"To do anything, the first requirement is that we become quiet. It is in this place of stillness that truth surfaces, understandings expand and creativity blossoms."

I love this quote, so much so that I told author Anne LeClaire I planned to copy it from her website and share it with you. I'm also adopting it as my mantra this fall. ie., Right now, I'm working through a list of commitments I made so I can get to my own quiet place. I have two manuscripts left to read for fellow writers, one book club commitment, and one ARC to read and blurb, then I'm done. After that, I won't be available for anything until after I've shipped the novel I'm working on to my agent.

In keeping with that commitment, here are the answers to a few questions posed to me via email yesterday from the Ladies of the Night Book Club in Idaho Falls:

Do you find it hard to relate to the main characters in your novels?

Not really, because on some level, and for some strange reason, the main character in each novel I've written has been bouncing around my head for years, so by the time I write their story I know them well. ie., the main character of the novel I'm writing now is an 85 year old man and the story is told from his point of view. I first thought of him six years ago when I was in Boston. Since then I've spent lots of time with him and in turn he's evolved into a full fledged character (warts and all) with a full fledged story to tell.

What was the last book you read?
The Flying Troutman’s by Miriam Toews.

What book are you currently reading?
Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson

What are the next four books you plan to read?
The Help by Kathryn Stockett
Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann
Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley
The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Best date I've had in years

My youngest is an avid reader, but my oldest has never shown an interest, which (as you might imagine) bothers me to no end. Over the years, I've tried everything. I've read to him, read with him, coaxed, cajoled and bought every kind of book you can imagine to lure him the wonders of a good story... but never with any luck.

At least, not until a week ago when a friend gave him a book he just couldn't put down. He finished it in three days and would not stop talking about it. Without prompting, he recounted the plot from start to finish (in mind-numbing detail) then told me all about the protagonist, the secondary characters and even a few of the walk-ons. He was brimming with enthusiasm, so much so that when I realized he'd been reading Book One of a nine book series, I drove into the city and bought him the next four!

Fast forward to today: My youngest is in a basketball camp this week with a buddy, so I decided to surprise my twelve-year-old and take him on a "date" to see the new Harry Potter movie, just the two of us. I told him last night and he was thrilled. Said he couldn't wait.

He was still in bed when I got up this morning (rare for him) and when I stuck my head in his room I found him reading Book Two ("I'm almost done," he said.) I made breakfast and while he ate, he read. On the 20 min drive into the city, he sat next to me in the passenger seat... reading. Then, for 30 mins while we waited for the film to begin in a semi-dark theatre, he used his iPod as a flashlight and continued to read.

He watched the movie, but as soon as we left the theatre and began driving home... out came the book again! He was still reading when his brother walked through the door after camp, and when his dad got home from work he only had 5 pages left. On his way to bed tonight he set Book Three on his nightstand for the morning. Then he gave me a hug, grinned and said, "Thanks for the movie, Mom. Best date I've had in years!"

What he said.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Hawaii bound for writing inspiration

It's impossible not be inspired when attending the Hawaii Writers Retreat & Conference. Not only are you in Hawaii, which screams relaxation, you're also surrounded by like-minded writers.

This year, I'll be spending time with good friend and fellow author, Jacquelyn Mitchard, whose sequel to the #1 New York Times bestseller The Deep End of the Ocean comes out Sept 15th. (The Deep End of the Ocean was the novel Oprah chose to launch her book club years ago, remember?) Jackie's sequel is titled No Time to Wave Goodbye. If you haven't pre-ordered a copy, do so now.

I'll also be presenting at the conference with fellow author Patricia Wood, whose debut novel Lottery was short-listed for the Orange Prize and has been sold in so many countries I've lost count.

Oh, and of course I'll be writing, putting the finishing touches on my 4th novel so I can hand it over to my agent and have her sell it sometime this fall. So... if you're a writer, what are you waiting for? Flights are cheap right now. Sign up and come join us in Hawaii. You won't regret it!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Time and the pressure of growing up

I gave my ten-year-old a digital alarm clock for his birthday last fall (along with a handful of other, more exciting gifts) and when he opened the clock, he went unusually quiet. I said if he didn't like it maybe we could get him a talking clock instead (no response) or one with a helicopter that lifts off and flies around the room and beeps when the alarm goes off? (No reaction to this, either).

We had company and he quietly asked if he could speak to me in dining room (a sure sign we were about to discuss something private). "What's wrong?" I asked. "You don't like the clock?"

"It's not that, Mom," he replied. "I'm just not ready!"

"Ready for what?"

"For the responsibility," he said. "First I have to set it and then if the power goes out I have to re-set it, and when the alarm goes off I need to get up right away and get dressed so I don't miss the bus. I like how it is now, how you wake me up and how you take care of all those things."

"Fair enough," I said. "But at some point you have to grow up and be more responsible. I just thought an alarm clock might be a good way to start."

"It's not," he said. "I don't need the extra pressure right now, okay? I'm not saying you're old, Mom, but you don't know how hard it is being a kid today. Clocks are not our friends!"

P.S. I'm posting this now because last night he took it out, plugged it in, and set it for the first time. "Think you're ready?" I asked, to which he replied (after a dramatic sigh), "Mom, you've really gotta stop babying me. I'm gonna be eleven soon!"

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The task of compartmentalizing

You know those slippery mercury balls inside old-style thermometers? How impossible they are to catch and hold onto? That's how hard I find it to compartmentalize. I'm a good multi-tasker and I'm organized, but for the most part everything else in my life bleeds together, which can be exhausting.

Is it a male thing? (every guy I know seems to be good at it) Or is it personality driven? Either way, I'm bad at it. Example: I hate watching the news, because if there's been a catastrophe somewhere (a shooting, a kidnapped child, a fire) it'll stay in the periphery of my thoughts for days afterward, upsetting me.

I like this explanation: a fellow author (who's published a dozen novels, half of them NYT bestsellers) told me she believes most writers feel things at a different level, that we have the ability to examine all the events around us in a camera-like fashion, record them in our subconscious with startling detail, and can then effectively draw them out (along with the emotions associated with each event) when we're writing.

Sounds plausible, but I think it's also a personality driven trait.
What about you?

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Writing can feel like this (parenting, too)

Metaphorically, I've been busy attempting to thread needles, both with my writing and parenting -- neither an easy task.

Often, I'll spend hours working on a scene and no matter what I put on the page I'm not happy with it. When this happens, I'll put it away and move on to a different scene (time and distance can be remarkable tools). However, there are also times when I'll push back my chair and simply ... stop, knowing that I've accomplished what I'd hoped to and that tinkering with it won't make it any better. And of course it's these moments that make all the long hours worthwhile, moments akin to successfully threading a needle. In the dark. With your hands shaking from lack of sleep.

Dramatic metaphor aside (because writing is hard and I feel it's only fair to represent it that way) I did manage to write two needle-and-thread scenes this week that saved me from deleting four others that have been frustrating me.

Similarly, the ups and downs continue on the parenting front... Like my youngest, who volunteered me for a field trip without my knowledge, tracing my signature off a writing contract (a shout-out for attention, don't you think?).

And then there's my 12 yr old who, for the first time (and I'm sure it won't be the last) yelled, "You don't understand me!" signalling the arrival of that slippery slide into a world filled with teen angst and miscommunication. The same kid who hugged me hours later and whispered, "You and me? Buddies for life," the way he used to when he was five and our days were often peppered with needle and thread moments.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Something about a boy

I used to think if I ever had kids I'd have one, a blond-haired, blue-eyed girl. So sure was I of this that when my oldest was born and they handed him to me, my hands started to shake. What was I supposed to do with a boy? We had nothing in common! How would we ever connect?!

Fast forward 12 years: I now have two boys and every day is an adventure, from what they say (Mom, why do girls get mad when I ask how much they weigh?) to what they do (see video).

video

Gone are their toddler pot-bellies, the silky super-hero capes they used to wear 24/7, the Batman masks I duct-taped to their faces because they kept falling off. Gone, too, are the glow-in-the-dark sunglasses my oldest insisted on wearing to bed for six months, my youngest's inexplicable fear of balloons, not to mention his much-appreciated though short-lived fascination with vacuuming.

Today, they're only angelic when they're asleep, though they won't actually go to sleep until I kiss them good-night.

When they're awake they equally frustrate and test me, arguing with each other and pushing the envelope, not an ounce of angelic in sight. Even so, the older they get the more often I sneak into their rooms late at night to stare at their pinked up cheeks, wondering what else life has in store for them, if they'll be happy, and if they'll ever meet someone who loves them even half as much as I do.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Frame of mind is everything...

I love this print. Matter of fact, I wish I had a copy hanging in my office, that's how much it speaks to me.

From my standpoint, it looks like this guy's walking into a dense fog. That he can't see what's ahead, but he's moving forward anyhow. Of course, it also looks like he may have popped back some whiskey first, but I still admire him. Probably because, at this moment, it seems he's set his mind to a task and will not be swayed from it. I get the sense he'll be okay even if he falls, don't you? That if he does, he'll find the strength to heave himself back up on that wall and keep going.

I admire his frame of mind. Matter of fact, I've decided to adopt it myself. You see, for more than a month now my husband has been ill and we haven't been able to pin down why. I feel as though I've been going through each day like this guy in the print -- teetering to the left and then swaying to the right before struggling to find some kind of balance for my family. Today, though, I've decided I've had enough with all the doom and gloom. As my husband keeps telling me, I need to change my frame of mind and look at things differently.

By the way, when I asked what he saw when he looked at this print, he said: "Looks like a guy who got pulled over for drinking and now he's walking a sobriety test line, why?"

Not hard to tell who writes fiction in our family, huh?

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Sifting through to find those gold nuggets

Imagine that these hands belong to an editor and each grain of sand represents a manuscript. If so, then this editor has a ton of manuscripts to choose from (which they all do, by the way, more so in today's market than ever). However, this editor (like all editors) doesn't want to buy just any manuscript. He/she is looking for a gold nugget... a book that rises above the rest and shines; a unique story, written well.

I'm posting this because a writer friend emailed today, disillusioned because the novel her agent recently took to market has been rejected over and over. (I won't say how many times or by how many houses, just that it's a painful and humbling process).

That said, my friend has written 5 novels and still isn't published (a common problem, I'm afraid). Frustrated, she's decided to put this one aside (as she has with the others) and has started writing another. I'd like to have it finished by June so my agent can hopefully sell before summer. What do you think?

I told her what her agent probably told her -- that every editor/publisher is looking for the same thing: a big story. That story is more important than anything. I told her IMHO she should focus on quality, not quantity. That she needs to slow down and spend 90 days brainstorming a unique story instead of 90 days trying to write another cookie-cutter chic-lit novel that doesn't stand out from the masses. That once she's got that slam-dunk great story, she should then take at least 6 months to a year and write it.... taking... her... time. I'm not sure I got through to her, but she reads my blog so hopefully this will :)

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Contrary to what you might think...

it doesn't get any easier. Of course, logic says it should, and because of this you remain optimistic that writing the next book will be a cake walk, that your ideas will flow through your fingers onto the page with such ease and clarity you'll soon be spinning out 2-3 novels per year!

Well, I'm currently writing my fourth novel and this magical shift still hasn't happened. However, I'm happy to report that other authors I know (some who've published ten or more novels) agree with me on this point: the process itself doesn't get any easier, though with each finished novel an author's growth inevitably shines through -- improvement in the writing, confidence on the page, style, structure, tone, etc.

So for those teenagers writing short stories for the competition I sponsored this spring... don't give up, and remember, the best writing is always done in the rewriting.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Learning to celebrate all that I am versus all that I'm not

I finished high school when I was seventeen and although the local phone company was hiring a ton of administrators at the time (you had to type 50 wpm and I could type 60 easy) they hired me as... a long distance operator.

I know! I was as stunned as you are, though later I realized I got the job because 1) no one actually ever applied for it so they were always short staffed, and 2) I mentioned on my resume that I had experience operating a hotel switchboard from a part-time job I'd had in high school.

I learned a ton about myself in that job though (how I hate shift work, that I love listening in on other people's conversations, that I like working in my pajamas.) Don't misunderstand, I really hated the job, I'm just saying it wasn't a total waste, that's all.

Life progressed from there... I said I'd never get married, and then I did. I swore up and down I'd never have kids, but if I were stupid enough to change my mind, I'd have one, a little girl I'd name Sawyer, and I still wouldn't get married.

Today, I'm a perfectionist, my own worst critic, and I often get down on myself about all that I'm not and everything I haven't achieved with my life. Pointless, isn't it? I mean, a bus could flatten me tomorrow and then what would any of it matter? So... I've decided 2009 is going to be the year where I celebrate all that I am vs. all that I'm not (yes, I know it's a little late to be talking new year's resolutions, but humor me -- these days it seems I'm late with everything.)

Okay... I'll never be a size two, nor will I ever have long, flowing auburn hair, and I couldn't sing if my life depended on it. However, I'm a giving person and a loyal friend. I love my kids (two boys I said I'd never have) and my husband (who I've been with for 20 years) and I like to think that long distance operator gig had something to do with me becoming an author, because I did manage to find a job where I can work in my pajamas!

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Wish I were in Denmark right now

Here's the Danish cover for The Penny Tree, which came out Jan 9/09. I love the cover art, though I've no idea what salgsomslag means! I tried to translate it online but got nowhere. Maybe it was intended it to be a subliminal marketing message that didn't come out right in the print process. You know the kind, right? Like how movie theatres were once accused of flashing buy popcorn / buy popcorn / buy popcorn at lightning speed across the screen during previews, only this was supposed to say buy this book / buy this book! *LOL*

On a final note, I just finished reading two novels I've been meaning to read for years. The first was The Dogs of Babel and the second The Bell Jar, an iconic novel that tackles the serious issue of depression and mental health. Both were beautifully written. Have a great weekend everyone :)

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Book talk, Camel Rides and IQ Tests

I spoke with a book club from Tampa tonight who went for drinks before we connected (who doesn't love celebratory readers, hmmm?) and after questions about The Penny Tree dried up here's what they asked:

Q: There's nothing more appealing than...?
A: A gentleman. I can't stand men with bad manners.

Q: Something you've always wanted to do but haven't is...
A: Ride a camel. No idea why, but I've spent years wanting to.

Q: Something my husband doesn't know about me is...
A: ...that for three years I've put the same IQ TEST IN A BOX in his stocking at Christmas and each year he says, "This is great!" then puts it aside and forgets I gave it to him. I'll keep re-gifting it until he says something. I'm aiming for five years straight.

Q: Books you've read recently that you enjoyed/admired...
A: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
(a NYT bestseller, represented by my agent Liza Dawson)
The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga (Winner of the Man Booker)
Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson (A true story)
Mr. Pip by Lloyd Jones (Finalist for the Man Booker Prize)

Friday, January 9, 2009

The little darlings that drive a story forward...

Here's a topic that was a reader favorite during my book club chats in 2008 -- character creation. Do you find it hard to think up characters for your stories? Are they based on people you know? Do you have favorites?

Each character I've created to date (protagonists, secondary characters, even walk-ons) has, for the most part, arrived fully formed. Of course, before they showed up in my creative process I'd spent months (or in the case of the novel I'm writing now, years) thinking about the story before I began writing it, including the kind of characters I felt would best drive the story forward.

Once I know who the characters are and what role they'll each play, I think the best way to describe them is how they behave. I really don't like to go overboard with physical description. I prefer to give them beliefs or behaviors or characteristics that set them apart instead.

Yes, there have been a few rare cases where I've "fashioned" a character after someone I know (ie., Tommy in The Tin Box) but I don't typically do that. As for favorites, I have soft spots for Tommy and Lexie in The Tin Box, Erna in The Penny Tree, Louie in The Silver Compass, and a man named Jack in the novel I'm working on now.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Moments for the archives

I'll do a writing related post later this week, but for now humor me while I get back into a work groove...

In an email to my sister last week (she forwarded it to me) my oldest son had this to say: "BTW I know Santa actually doesn't exist. I figured it out on my own and then clarafide it with Mom that its just my parents. Don't tell my brother though. I think the truth would kill him."

Last night, when I told my youngest it was back to school this morning, this is what he said: "Are you kidding!? Learn, learn, learn! Why can't we just stay home for three months straight with our parents? Maybe so many of em wouldn't dee-vorce then cuz they'd have stronger families."

After taking our kids to see Marley and Me, our youngest said this while sniffing and wiping his eyes: "I don't understand why you and Dad put me through stuff like this."

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Whoop! 2009 is finally here

A fresh start. Time to kick away the stool and take some risks. Time to focus on what's ahead vs. the puddles we may have had to jump in 2008. If you're a reader, I hope you're in the middle of a gem of a book you didn't see coming. If you're a writer, I hope the characters you dream up this year make your WIP stand out from the masses. And for everyone else, I hope 2009 is a year you'll never forget, in the best possible way.